Rich Trotter, a West Point alum who spent five years in the Army after graduation, did a courageous thing recently: He complimented a Navy man, albeit in Three Stooges terms.
"What Bill does is he helps me feel a lot less like Curly and more like Moe," Trotter said, referring to the confident leader side of comedian Moe Howard's character, not the head-slapping meanie who often takes out his aggression on his numskull brothers.
Trotter is president of R.S. Rosati Inc., a 105-year-old Delaware County Italian ice company the Hatfield native bought in April 1997, becoming the first owner not related to founder Sam Rosati. Bill is Bill Anderson, chair of the Philadelphia chapter of the executive support group Vistage, who, three years ago, criticized Trotter's growth plan as not nearly ambitious enough and who helped trigger an advance to make the largely regional dessert purveyor a national player.
"I'm an Army guy and Bill is a Navy guy, and yet we get along, except for that few-day period in December when we play each other in football," Trotter said.
Apparently when it comes to business, military rivalry takes a rear position to executive-level loneliness and the need for strategic guidance.
"I truly was in a rut," Trotter said. "I knew we had to modernize. I was stuck. I just didn't know how to get from here to there."
By stuck, the son of a soft-pretzel company owner and oldest of 13 kids, meant a leveling off of sales from 2000 to 2015 after doubling them the first few years at the helm of Rosati, started in West Philadelphia in 1912 and based in Clifton Heights since the mid-1950s. Those early years of robust growth were due largely to Trotter and his management team lifting it from a seasonal business to a year-round earner with school-lunch contracts, now two-thirds of company sales. The rest comes from supermarkets and scoop shops.
"It was my fault," Trotter, 62, of Perkasie, said of those flat sales in a recent interview. "I didn't have a model for hiring people to go out and sell the product."
A self-described "grind-'em-out guy," Trotter was doing a lot of the sales himself, obviously a limiting structure for growth.
One day, he got a cold call from a guy peddling a combination of business advice and group therapy. Vistage, Trotter learned, offered an opportunity for CEOs to meet in a noncompetitive environment to problem-solve, commiserate, or just breathe into a paper bag.
"A lot of small-business owners, we almost feel like lone wolves out there," Trotter said.
Anderson, 71, of Chestnut Hill, leads two Vistage groups with 25 members total from Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs, their businesses ranging from $5 million in annual sales to $500 million. The members, predominantly men, meet monthly. Trotter said his annual membership cost is $17,000 a year.
From that spawned a one-on-one mentoring relationship about three years ago between Anderson and Trotter. With an engineering degree from Columbia University, Anderson went on to serve four years as a naval officer before heading to business school at Harvard. What followed was a career that has exposed him to both ends of the business spectrum — including as a merchandising and marketing director for France-based Carrefour and currently as the Pennsylvania and New Jersey license holder for New Balance athletic footwear.
Anderson's no expert in water ice, but he claims to know potential when he sees it. And he quickly saw a great deal of untapped potential when he heard Trotter's business plan for Rosati.
"The first thing that Bill told me was that I was thinking too small," Trotter, wearing a polo shirt bearing the company's red rose logo, recalled recently at Rosati's headquarters/factory on East Madison Avenue in an otherwise residential neighborhood. Anderson was there, too, a soft-spoken, yet reassuring, presence in a dark blazer and leather loafers.
"I was thinking in terms of growing by half a million dollars in a year," Trotter said. "He was thinking more in terms of 10 million, not 10 million in a year but that [half a million] was way too small, that the business had tremendous potential. And I never heard that from another person."
What made the Navy man so gung ho on Rosati's prospects?
"First of all, it's a very well-established brand. That's the hardest thing to do today, to establish a brand," Anderson said. "Then it doesn't take a lot to just say, 'Let's go do this nationwide … and let's make it a household name in other than just Philadelphia.'"
To do that, Anderson said, "you need some stuff." His list included people, money, vision, a sounding board, and execution.
The financing is "the tough part," Anderson said. "The rest of it is a matter of networking, and knowing where things are and resources and reaching out and talking and getting out of Clifton Heights."
He wasn't necessarily talking about moving the company out of the town of 6,702, according to 2017 census figures. But it might. Depending on property availability and other factors, the future might mean moving Rosati out of Clifton Heights — maybe even out of Pennsylvania.
"My heart is here in Clifton Heights," Trotter said, "but I have to think of the next generation."
Key to ensuring that the company of 30 employees and $8 million in annual sales has such longevity is more cold storage, he said. With guidance from Anderson and others from Vistage, a plan for that is being finalized.
It entails buying property (about five acres) on which Rosati would build a 20,000-square-foot freezer to hold more finished product. Rosati currently is paying $250,000 a year for rented cold storage in Delaware. More on-site storage would enable production to expand from five days a week, 10 hours a day, to seven days a week, 20 hours a day, creating at least 10 new jobs, Trotter said.
The project, estimated at $5 million and expected to be built out in phases, also calls for a new warehouse and ultimately production and office areas. Trotter, with the help of financial experts he found through Anderson, is currently interviewing prospective banks for the best financing option.
The cold-storage facility Trotter envisions will "take our business into the 20- to 30 million-dollar mark," he said.
It's space Rosati's prior owner, Jim "Judge" Salomone, son-in-law of founder Sam Rosati, had urged Trotter to get as soon as he bought the business, Salomone said.
"It came to fruition, it's just about 20 years too late," Anderson joked.